CALDWELL, WILLIAM, army and militia officer, merchant, jp, and Indian Department official; b. c. 1750 in County Fermanagh (Northern Ireland), probably the son of William Caldwell and his wife Rebecka; father of a mixed-blood son, Billy Caldwell*; m. 1783 Suzanne Baby, daughter of Jacques Baby*, dit Dupéront, and they had five sons and three daughters; d. 20 Feb. 1822 in Amherstburg, Upper Canada.
William Caldwell came to North America in 1773. He served as an officer in the campaign of 1774 waged by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, against the Indians of the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontier. With the outbreak of the American revolution, Caldwell fought in Dunmore’s forces again, taking part in the storming of Norfolk, Va, early in 1776. Defeated, Dunmore had to withdraw his troops by sea to New York.
When Caldwell recovered from his wounds, he went to Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) and was appointed captain in Butler’s Rangers [see John Butler*]. In the rangers’ campaigns Caldwell was “a very active Partisan,” according to the fort’s commandant. He led, rather than ordered, his troops into battle and he demonstrated a ruthlessness that the Americans would remember. When the victory of George Rogers Clark at Vincennes (Ind.) in 1778 threatened the Detroit River frontier, Caldwell and some 50 select rangers were sent from Niagara, and thus his long association with the Detroit area began. In succeeding years he alternated between Detroit and Niagara, parrying each anticipated American thrust and on occasion driving deep into enemy territory. In 1782 he commanded the British forces in two of the most notorious victories of the war. In June his troops and their Indian allies defeated William Crawford’s advancing columns on the upper Sandusky River (Ohio), and Crawford suffered horribly at the hands of his Indian captors. Then Caldwell led a force into Kentucky and in August dealt a devastating blow to the Americans at the battle of Blue Licks. At this point in the war, action shifted to the diplomatic front, and it was just as well for Caldwell because he and his rangers returned to Detroit hardly capable of taking the field again.
By the war’s end Caldwell and several associates had decided to settle in the Detroit area. In early 1783 he and Indian Department officer Matthew Elliott* took up and began developing tracts of land on the east side of the Detroit River opposite Bois Blanc Island. Late in the year, having been joined by several other men with similar intentions, they began negotiations with local Indian chiefs for a grant of the land. Jacob Schieffelin, secretary of the Indian Department at Detroit, heard of their intentions and secretly attempted to obtain the lands for himself, but Governor Frederick Haldimand* upheld the claims of the Caldwell group. Recognizing the value of a quasimilitary settlement on the Detroit frontier, he also ordered provisions and implements for as many former rangers as wished to settle in the area. The tract was surveyed and 19 river-front lots were laid out. Captains Henry Bird, Caldwell, Alexander McKee*, and Elliott received the largest ones nearest the site of the proposed fort; the lots downriver were assigned to other Indian Department officers and interpreters. Caldwell later added to his holdings by obtaining grants in Malden Township until he had a compact estate of some 2,000 acres anchored by his river-front lot beside the rising community of Amherstburg.
Caldwell was less than successful in establishing the loyalists and disbanded rangers he had invited to come from Niagara and settle in the Detroit region. When they arrived, they found that all the lands along the river had been taken up. To remedy the situation Caldwell obtained from the Indians a parcel of land on the north shore of Lake Erie, which he called the New Settlement. The provisions promised by Haldimand failed to materialize in sufficient quantity, however, and little development occurred until the arrival in 1787 of Major Robert Mathews* as commandant at Detroit. Sensing Mathews’s concern, Caldwell quickly turned over to him the land and a portion of the provisions and implements that had been sent out, and Mathews proceeded to oversee the settlement, which became the nucleus of Colchester and Gosfield townships. Caldwell has nevertheless been credited with the founding of the New Settlement and, indeed, in 1788 he was rewarded with a 3,000-acre tract of marsh at the mouth of the river, which was granted in the name of two of his sons.
As well as accumulating land, Caldwell engaged in commerce at Detroit and among the Indians south of Lake Erie. In partnership with Elliott, he established an agreement in 1784 with David Duncan and William Wilson of Pittsburgh, Pa, to obtain flour, cattle, bacon, and other provisions that were often scarce at Detroit. Increasingly fierce American competition for the Indians’ business eventually brought the venture to grief. Rumours in early 1787 that Caldwell and Elliott were failing led Duncan and Wilson to request payment of their outstanding debts. Actually, they were not the largest creditors: more was owed to Detroit merchants Robert Ellice* and William and Alexander Macomb. Pressed by these local creditors, Caldwell and Elliott assigned their available assets to them, leaving the Pittsburgh suppliers wholly unsecured. Duncan and Wilson, in turn, effectively blocked Caldwell and Elliott from conducting further business. Their debts greatly exceeded their assets, and their creditors consequently suffered heavy losses, but Caldwell and Elliott escaped further penalty and retained their substantial landed properties. Caldwell continued to serve as a supplier of timber, corn, and teams to the garrison and to seek other provisioning contracts from the military and from fur-trading companies. On 28 July 1788 he was made a magistrate for the District of Hesse.
The decade of apparent peace following the treaty of 1783 was in reality a period of constant military alert along the Detroit frontier. The British remained in control of posts in American territory and continued to encourage the land claims and military activities of their Indian allies. Whether they would actively intervene on behalf of the Indians was an open question. When in 1794 a large American force under Anthony Wayne advanced towards the Miamis (Maumee) River, Richard G. England*, the commandant at Detroit, sent Caldwell and some 60 volunteers to reinforce Fort Miamis (Maumee, Ohio), while the militia was held in reserve. Near the fort on 20 August, at the battle of Fallen Timbers, Wayne routed the Indians, who retreated behind the cover of a rearguard action fought by the Wyandots and the white volunteers.
Not satisfied with the Indian lands obtained by their victory, the Americans soon renewed their pressure, and tension in the region once again increased. For Caldwell, as for Elliott and others of their old comrades-in-arms, neutrality was impossible. The Americans associated their names with border warfare and with atrocities committed by the Indians. In the fall of 1807 rumour had it that if war were declared, ten thousand Kentuckians would seize Amherstburg and execute Caldwell, Elliott, and all the members of the Indian Department. When in 1812 war did come Caldwell and four of his sons took up arms.
In the autumn of 1812 Colonel Henry Procter, who commanded on the Detroit frontier, conceived the idea of establishing a ranger force of the sort that had been so effective during the American revolution. Early in 1813 he received authorization to create such a special corps, to be commanded by William Caldwell. These men, known as the Western Rangers or Caldwell’s Rangers, served in various actions south of Lake Erie that summer and when in the fall Procter decided that retreat from Amherstburg had become necessary, they accompanied him. Caldwell played his usual fearless role in the thick of the battle of Moraviantown in October. He and his rangers took up position beside their Indian allies and continued the battle long after the British regulars had surrendered or withdrawn.
Having escaped death or capture, Caldwell and his sons fought again as rangers at the battle of Longwood (near Thamesville) in March 1814. In May, Caldwell replaced Elliott as superintendent of Indians for the Western District. He then secured places for his sons William and Thomas in the Indian Department; Francis Xavier* continued in the rangers. Members of the Caldwell family fought together again at the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane and at the siege of Fort Erie.
As Indian superintendent Caldwell was soon involved in a heated controversy between the deputy superintendent general, William Claus, and John Norton, spokesman for the Six Nations of the Grand River, a major native force in the war. Norton’s success and obvious popularity with the Indians had earned him the temporary confidence of military leaders, who ordered the Indian Department not to interfere with his leadership or disposition of presents estate of some 2,000 acres anchored by his river-front lot beside the rising community of Amherstburg.
The termination of the war in December 1814 offered an excellent opportunity for commander-in-chief Sir Gordon Drummond* to end the feud while reducing the complement of the Indian service. Norton was pensioned off and eased out as graciously as circumstances would permit. Caldwell’s dismissal took longer and was preceded by more bitterness. Indeed, his competency had already been questioned. Claus was disappointed with his leadership of the western Indians, and members of the Indian Department anonymously accused him of trying to establish his sons at their expense. Moreover, his belligerent views were out of harmony with Britain’s post-war intentions towards the Americans.
With the war over, Caldwell’s task was the dispersal and resettlement of the western Indians. The problem was immense because the Indians were near starvation and almost in open revolt by the latter stages of the conflict. The military, from Procter to the highest levels, sought to make scapegoats of them, and hence of the Indian Department, for their own failures in the war. Moreover, conflicts between Caldwell and Amherstburg’s commandant, Reginald James, developed into a classic confrontation between a military seeking retrenchment and an Indian Department defending its prerogatives. Lamenting military interference in departmental affairs, Caldwell blamed James for lack of progress in the resettlement of the Indians and the planting of their crops, as well as for their general dissatisfaction. He charged him with violating Indian Department usage and with lack of communication. James, in turn, described Caldwell’s charges as “without foundation . . . originating, I hope, in the imbecility of the Deputy Superintendent.” He complained, as well, of Caldwell’s insubordination and inability to keep private information confidential. Moreover he asserted that Caldwell had failed to explain properly to the Indians that under the terms of the treaty which had ended the war there had been strict limitations placed on their freedom to cross the border with the United States, and he therefore blamed Caldwell for the border troubles involving Indians that occurred. The feud between Caldwell and James reached its peak in October 1815. According to James, Caldwell called him a liar in public and demanded that all further communication between them be conducted in writing. James suspended Caldwell on 21 October and replaced him with Billy Caldwell, who had collaborated against his father.
Aged and ailing, William Caldwell spent his last years restoring his property in Malden Township. His losses had been heavy – his wife died in 1812 and his home and barns were destroyed by vengeful Americans. Although he claimed compensation of some £2,600, his refusal to provide adequate evidence led a military claims board to reduce the sum by 50 per cent. He could, however, take some comfort in his successful petition to receive the half pay owing to him as a reduced ranger captain, which was finally granted in 1820.
Meanwhile, Caldwell continued his role as civic leader. Still a magistrate, in December 1817 he chaired a meeting in response to Robert Gourlay*’s inquiry about the state of Malden Township. The old loyalist and sole surviving founder of the township could not but have been pleased at the public recounting of the area’s development. His ongoing interest in building up the community is evidenced in his efforts to have the court-house and jail transferred from Sandwich (Windsor) to Amherstburg and to establish Amherstburg as the district town of a divided Western District.
In January 1818 Caldwell drew up a will dividing his property among his legitimate children. A convert to Roman Catholicism, during his lifetime he had donated land for both the Anglican and the Catholic churches in Amherstburg. He died on 20 Feb. 1822. Writing after the action at Fallen Timbers, Lieutenant-Colonel England had called him a “very very odd but very gallant fellow.”
AO, RG 22, ser.155. BL, Add. mss 21761–65 (mfm. at PAC). Can., Parks Canada, Fort Malden National Hist. Park (Amherstburg, Ont.), Arch. coll., Caldwell family papers; Information files, Caldwell family. Essex Land Registry Office (Windsor, Ont.), Abstract index to deeds, Malden Township, vols.1–2 (mfm. at AO). PAC, RG 1, L1, 22: 714; 26: 248–52, 256–59, 298–99, 357; L3; RG 8, I (C ser.); RG 19, E5(a), 3728, claim 5. “Board of land office, District of Hesse,” AO Report, 1905. “Campaigns of 1812–14: contemporary narratives by Captain W. H. Merritt, Colonel William Claus, Lieut.-Colonel Matthew Elliott and Captain John Norton,” ed. E. [A.] Cruikshank, Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.], no.9 (1902): 3–20. Corr. of Hon. Peter Russell (Cruikshank and Hunter). Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank). Doc. hist. of campaign upon Niagara frontier (Cruikshank). John Askin papers (Quaife). Mich. Pioneer Coll. Select British docs. of War of 1812 (Wood). “Surveyors’ letters, notes, instructions, etc., from 1788 to 1791,” AO Report, 1905. Windsor border region (Lajeunesse). Commemorative biographical record of the county of Essex, Ontario, containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens and many of the early settled families (Toronto, 1905). Christian Denissen, Genealogy of the French families of the Detroit River region, 1701–1911, ed. H. F. Powell (2v., Detroit, 1976). Officers of British forces in Canada (Irving).
Katharine Buchanan, “A study of the William Caldwell involvement in the establishment of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in the town of Amherstburg, Ontario” (undergraduate essay, Univ. of Windsor, 1981). E. [A.] Cruikshank, The story of Butler’s Rangers and the settlement of Niagara (Welland, Ont., 1893; repr. Owen Sound, Ont., 1975). Reginald Horsman, Matthew Elliott, British Indian agent (Detroit, 1964). Allen, “British Indian Dept.,” Canadian Hist. Sites, no.14: 5–125. F. H. Armstrong, “The oligarchy of the Western District of Upper Canada, 1788–1841,” CHA Hist. papers, 1977: 87–102. John Clarke, “Aspects of land acquisition in Essex County, Ontario, 1790–1900,” and “Land and law in Essex County: Malden Township and the abstract index to deeds,” SH, 11 (1978): 98–119 and 475–93; “The role of political position and family and economic linkage in land speculation in the Western District of Upper Canada, 1788–1815,” Canadian Geographer (Toronto), 19 (1975): 18–34. Reginald Horsman, “American Indian policy in the old northwest, 1783–1812,” William and Mary Quarterly (Williamsburg, Va.), 3rd ser., 18 (1961): 35–53. C. M. Johnston, “William Claus and John Norton: a struggle for power in old Ontario,” OH, 57 (1965): 101–8. J. M. Sosin, “The use of Indians in the war of the American revolution: a re-assessment of responsibility,” CHR, 46 (1965): 101–21. G. F. G. Stanley, “The Indians in the War of 1812,” CHR, 31 (1950): 145–65.
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Cite This Article
L. L. Kulisek, “CALDWELL, WILLIAM (d. 1822),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/caldwell_william_1822_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||L. L. Kulisek|
|Title of Article:||CALDWELL, WILLIAM (d. 1822)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||May 29, 2023|